Change habits? Talk is cheap

October 4th, 2007
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The cry for a “fight against” climate change has provoked proposals for many forms of action, big and small. Industries are called to clean up their act, individuals to reduce their “environmental footprint”. But talk is cheap. What does it mean in practice, and what are the implications of the suggested solutions?

As I’ve written here before, personal solutions range from eschewing bottled water and imported fruit to abstaining from meat. Other strategies include the concept of “carbon offsetting” which essentially amounts to making a charitable donation every time you know you’re committing a carbon faux pas like traveling by plane. Thanks to friend of the blog Red W. for sending this interesting article on “offsetting”.

Therein, Brendan O’Neill describes how First World fat cats like us can “offset” our environmental misdeeds by subsidizing “greener” behaviour in the Third World. The idea is, for example, to get sub-Saharan peasants to use “traditional” (read marginal subsistence) farming methods rather than adopting “bad” Western habits.

O’Neill likens it to a 21st century form of slavery, with pasty white guys trapping less advantaged people in their primitive lives. It also re-emphasizes the pseudo-religious nature of environmentalism because, as O’Neill writes, offsetting essentially amounts to paying penance for environmental sins. I also like his other analogy – hearkening back to the Reformation – calling offsetting a post-Modern form of indulgences, a way of buying oneself out of Green Purgatory.

This discussion then begs the questions of what we can actually do to be environmentally responsible – rather than condemning the Third World to perpetual poverty or voluntarily moving ourselves toward the same. We are then condemned, not to Purgatory, but to scrutinizing some of the big picture proposals to address the world’s energy needs.

One proposed solution that keeps coming up is that of biofuels - that we can somehow grow and harvest enough biomass to fuel a modern economy or to at least offset a significant amount of fossil fuel consumption. When biomass or biofuels come up I immediately think back to one of the first documentaries I saw on Global Warming, a feature on PBS’s Nova. Although I disagreed with the conclusions of the documentary I remember one scientist’s comments specifically, and it was about biomass as an energy source. The scientist gave this assessment of biomass as a major fuel source – that the world’s energy demands (in the late 1990s) could be met with biomass “if we plant all of our arable land in wheat and either eat the wheat or use it to make fuel”.

So in terms of the BIG picture, biomass is “big” enough to meet a significant portion of our energy needs. But, as the same scientist continued to say, that assumes world energy demand will stay flat when in fact every indication is that it will ramp up significantly. And the increased demand will come precisely from those poor countries the offsetters are trying to manipulate.
Another aspect of biomass is the lingering question of “full-cycle” environmental impact. Is it better to burn fossil fuels, split atoms or put vast amounts of land under cultivation to meet our energy needs? Are the biomass advocates really proposing intensive agriculture, potentially depleting soil and spilling fertilizer into waterways? The “organic” alternative would presumably be much less productive.

Interestingly a new documentary, King Corn, latest in the line of activist films, showcases the tremendous subsidies given U.S. corn growers. The producers’ angle is the negative impact on our diet and health by the vast amount of cheap corn put on the food market.

Perhaps I missed it, but the film’s website appeared to ignore the other main driver behind corn subsidies – ethanol production. They don’t seem to raise the issue of corn being a “high-demand” crop in terms of water and nutrients, nor the potential for soil degradation. A respected economist I know did a study of the ethanol industry a number of years ago and concluded it was essentially a back-door subsidy for corn producers. Add the potential environmental impact and you wonder just how green this fuel is.

The bottom line is you don’t get something for nothing. “Offsetting” or off-loading carbon to someone else means they have to sacrifice on lifestyle when you don’t. Whatever the Greens say, oil wells and even oilsands have a limited areal “footprint”. They do ultimately cause more CO2 molecules to be emitted. Conversely, fields of corn have a vast areal footprint, ethanol is less energy-intense (meaning it’s fundamenally less efficient), but produce fewer total emissions.

The common theme is that those offering easy solutions are generally not telling you everything. They specifically won’t tell you the full costs or environmental trade-offs of their proposed plan. So beware, as always, of easy solutions.

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